Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of sources. For Asya Varetsa, 28, and Kate Zubarieva, 30, founders of the Kiev-based brand Sleeper, it struck on Christmas eve in 2013, while the pair was watching the 1991 John Hughes film, Curly Sue.
It was the 10-year-old protagonist, Kelly Lynch’s character Grey Ellison, who initially caught their eye. For the most part, she wore oversized smock dresses and crinkled linen robes. “In one of the scenes, Grey stands barefoot, drowning in a floor-length striped night robe. We thought: That’s a look,” says Varetsa.
The women had recently left full-time jobs – Zubarieva worked for a media outlet in Kiev; Varetsa wrote for ELLE Russia – and were spending Christmas together in Kiev, where Zubarieva was based. They began to muse on domesticity: what we wear while we’re at home, and why we wear it. It led to them conceiving of a label that offered a more multifaceted type of sleepwear. “Is that a dress or robe? Pyjamas or a two-piece suit? We want to create pieces that can be either/or. A linen robe can function just as well as a summer coat. In the same way, our silk white pyjamas can work at a wedding”, explains Zubarieva.
The duo designed the first Sleeper collection in early 2014. It immediately caused a stir on Instagram, with several key influencers wearing the Brigitte, a long, loose maxi dress with a square neckline. Later on that year, Franca Sozzani, the late editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, named Sleeper her brand of the month, piquing the interest of other media outlets. “Support came quite quickly after that,” says Varetsa. “We wanted to focus on refining the supply chain and ensuring quality control, all the while, developing our best-selling styles like the Brigitte dress and pyjama sets.”
Back then, they were experimenting with motifs that appear in traditional Ukrainian craft and folklore, creating lightly embroidered nightdresses, and linen off-the-shoulder smocks. They started selling their pieces in December 2014, on a makeshift website Varetsa had built in her spare time. “We were both fascinated with the type of versatility that’s rooted in simplicity. We wanted to design clothes that would give women some time back, rather than take more of it,” Varetsa says.
This wasn’t just a personal motivation though; it was a social one too. In 2014, while Varetsa and Zubarieva were planning the brand’s first collection, the Ukrainian Revolution was ripping through the streets of Kiev, forcing women to work harder to preserve time, energy and basic rights. The women of Kiev had felt these repercussions before. “In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics there were lots of factories. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, they were left in a state of bankruptcy and a lot of women lost their jobs,” says Zubarieva. “Some found sales jobs, others became janitors, but really they were seamstresses and experts of their craft. We hired the first seamstress a month after we launched in 2014, and when a vacancy became available, she then called her friend. We’ve built a team of skilled professionals, who value production and design.”
The women hope their studio, currently located in the centre of Kiev, where they have a team of 38, can function as a hub for the diverse community they work with. “Although we’ve hired a number of experienced seamstresses, we also recruit college students and offer them sewing courses and internships. One day, we’d like to create an educational centre that offers up master classes and tutorials,” says Varetsa.
Increasingly, the duo has begun to cast the net wider, analysing other cultures, too. On a trip to Japan last year, the women were inspired by the country’s approach to design, which is often imbued with the kind of acute introspection that requires both time and patience. “Attention to the small things in Japan is what matters most,” they say. Back home, they captured this simplicity in a new dress style, the Linen Robe, which features a single, bamboo belt-tie at the waist. The same inspirations can be felt in the brand’s Furoshiki-inspired bags (Furoshiki is a type of Japanese wrapping technique) This Is Not A Bag and Bambola. Both styles mark the brand’s first foray into a new category, accessories, and the merger of Ukrainian and Japanese design principles. They are determined to keep growing their nascent company. “Design doesn’t just end with the garment,” they say. “It’s always a reflection of the way in which the clothing was produced, and we want this to be as sustainable as possible.”
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